King Kirby Brings Comics' Unsung Hero to the Stage
Fred Van Lente and Crystal Skillma
Survey the pop-culture universe, and it's clear that a significant chunk of it originated in the mind of comic-book artist Jack Kirby. Not only did he co-create most of the foundation of the Marvel Universe (and a significant chunk of DC Comics' as well), but his concepts and designs have influenced countless artists and filmmakers. And yet, despite being one of comics' most important pioneers, in his lifetime Kirby failed to achieve the fame and financial rewards enjoyed by his frequent collaborator, Stan Lee. Now, comic book writer Fred Van Lente and award-winning playwright Crystal Skillman are debuting King Kirby, a play about his life, at the Brick Theater's Comic Book Theater Festival.
First off, could you describe Jack Kirby's importance to comics, and to the culture at large?
FVL: We like to call Kirby "the most famous artist you never heard of," particularly for non-comics readers. He co-created Captain America, the Fantastic Four, the Hulk, the Avengers, the X-Men. He was pivotal in the creation of romance comics. He did some of the best science-fiction comics in the '70s; he was one of the first to do independent comics in the '80s. The reason the San Diego Comic-Con is in San Diego is that it was close enough to his house so he could come. I could go on, but why bother?
CS: I knew him more from The New Gods [a sci-fi title Kirby created for DC Comics, which influenced Star Wars, among many other things]. I could see the larger imprint that he had. So when Fred had an idea for a play of his life, I was really excited.
FVL: I had written a play around 2002, before I became a comics pro. When the Comic Book Theater Festival started up, Crystal suggested I dust it off, and she did an incredible job rewriting it and reshaping the material.
What is it about Jack Kirby's life that makes good drama?
CS: Comics didn't really exist before these guys. People were creating this world as they go. That's always very exciting for an audience, because they're not being dropped into something they can't understand. These are guys who need work, and this is their skill. People can relate to that.
I think it's really cool that there are these big moments — going to war, serving under Patton and using his drawing skills to make maps — but there are these great little moments, too. We're very lucky that there are so many interviews with him, and he was so very vocal throughout his life. He's given us these little glimpses that he regrets certain moments. He's a really compelling character, because he admitted some failings, and fought for the things he believed in.
FVL: It's a grand tragedy in almost a Shakespearean way. I don't think anyone is interested in another "dreamy artist battles the cruel, harsh world of the marketplace" story. These are fallible people. And many of the reasons why no one knows who Kirby is outside of comics — the blame can be rested very much on Kirby's shoulders. I'm heartened that all the people who've read the play are pleased at how evenhanded it is. It's as much a man versus himself story as it is a man versus Stan Lee story.
How are you showcasing Kirby's art in the production?
FVL: Our lead, Steven Rattazzi [the voice of Dr. Orpheus on The Venture Bros.], studied animation when he was younger, and he's going to draw onstage. So we'll have Steven's live drawings in addition to the actual Kirby artwork. Obviously we don't expect an actor to be able to mimic Kirby's drawing style.
CS: Drawing is an important action of the play, and the way it's coming to life will be very exciting. John Hurley [who also directed Action Philosophers, a play Skillman adapted from one of Van Lente's comics] is a very visual director, but he also keeps things grounded and moving. We're moving very quickly through the play and his life, but they're such dynamic moments that sometimes they imitate the genre he's working on at the time.
FVL: Part of the conceit of the play is that since Kirby's art is so frenetic and action-packed, the show is very frenetic and packed with detail — hopefully in a way that the audience finds super fun and simple to follow.
You're also doing a Kickstarter for the production. Has that changed its ambition or scope?
FVL: Not really. The Kickstarter has allowed us to get the best people and get the best actors, and have the freedom to do the best possible production we could. The other great thing is that the Kickstarter campaign also serves as a marketing campaign. It's a way to get the word out.
CS: It really allows these projects to live and breathe, and get to the audience. What's exciting is proving the need for something. It's very moving, because people have been sharing it everywhere and saying, "Help this. Help this come to life." That's a really gorgeous thing.
What do you hope audiences come away with after seeing King Kirby?
FVL: I hope people get a better understanding of where their popular culture comes from, and what happens to the people who produce it. Too often the assumption is just this stuff is cranked out at some corporate machine. But human beings make this stuff, and they have living, breathing stories, and this is one of the more important ones.
CS: What I love about Jack's life is that his drawings speak for him. They are his words. I think that's very inspiring. That has value in itself, even though maybe everything didn't turn out exactly the way he was hoping. The effect that he's had, and the little vibrations that keep growing among other artists that he's inspired, make the life lived have value.
King Kirby opens June 20 at the Brick Theater (579 Metropolitan Avenue) in Brooklyn. Tickets here.
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